Merge and Acquire the Podium

Now is the time to reimagine our sport system

Merge and Acquire the Podium

Of all the public health levers available to pull, sport can be the most potent. It is a lot more than just healthy eating and physical activity. The competitive nature of eating, sleeping, and training to compete and perform is a powerful framework for building health. This is true whether sport goals are chased at school, in a local beer league, or at the international level. The formidable capacity of sport to steward health has made it all the more frustrating when gyms, fields, and pools have had to be closed to confront COVID-19.

Society paid the price and sport has paid the price. Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities reports that two-thirds of parents of children aged 4 to 17 say that COVID-19 has had a strong negative impact on their kids’ participation in sports or recreational play. With youth sport at least partially continuing in many jurisdictions, adults bear even more of the brunt.

In March 2021, about 1/3 of Canadian sport organizations faced bankruptcy. Jumpstart, who reported the stark figure, and others ask Canadians to rescue these organizations, beleaguered by the global pandemic, through support and charitable donations.

Maybe the embattled sport organizations should be allowed to die.

Instead of propping up the status quo, why not ride, what Imagine Canada calls, the “seismic realignment of the charitable sector” caused by COVID-19 through closures, mergers, significant layoffs and program transformations, into a better sport system? First, consider what exists.

In each of the current 58 sports recognized by the Canadian government, there is a single National Sport Organization (“NSO”) designated by Sport Canada, a department of Canadian Heritage. NSOs theoretically oversee the Provincial or Territorial Sport Organizations (“PTSO”) in their respective sports. At the bottom level are the local clubs, theoretically engaging with the NSOs and PTSOs to create an ecosystem, which includes 24 recognized National Multisport Organizations (“MSO”) such as the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees, Own the Podium, Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities, ParticipACTION and Kidsport.

  1. NSO and MSO
  2. PTSO
  3. Local club

But, the sport system is top heavy. Generally, only NSOs and MSOs can issue tax receipts for donations because the Supreme Court of Canada held sport is in itself not charitable at law in AYSA Amateur Youth Soccer Association v Canada (Revenue Agency), 2007 SCC 42 – instead, the Income Tax Act grants charity-like status to organizations that “promote amateur athletics on a nationwide basis,” not a provincial or local one. Also, the lustre of international sport means most administrators, coaches and officials want to be involved at the NSO or MSO level.

It is trite that elite athletes are not born international competitors, they need to start with quality early-level sport. That would also greatly benefit the overwhelming majority of Canadians who enjoy sport and recreation but do not go on to become elite athletes.

Consequently, second, consider what could exist.

Why not use the momentum of COVID-19 and consider it to be useful in the sport sector? If organizations are dying, one option is for them to merge. Recently, Australia took its equivalents of NSOs for BMX, cycling and mountain biking and 15 PTSO and club equivalents, and combined 18 boards and 11 CEOs into one organization: AusCycling. In Canada such alignments could solve many fundraising and talent management challenges.

This kind of bold vision will take a culture shift. Preferable tax status should be preserved where it exists. Early-level sport thrives in decentralization, while high performance can benefit from well-governed centralized excellence. Canadians from coast-to-coast are the winners in a sport system prospering at all its levels.